Bringing Back the Erotic Thriller

A genre long considered passé is coming back into the limelight.

Streaming is the final destination for the erotic thriller. As a genre no longer popular with theatergoers, or so studios think, erotic thrillers have had to latch onto other means of distribution. Since about the late 00’s, thrillers in general have fallen out of favor as colorful blockbusters and thoughtful indies have taken their place. Sexuality and nudity in popular cinema is no longer as easy to come by as it used to be, unless you keep up with foreign language releases. Despite this, the erotic thriller’s recent resurgence in popularity indicates that there may be an audience yet for a movement many consider stuck in Y2K.

Amy Adams as Susan Morrow sits next to an art installment: A lifelike recreation of a face-down naked woman. An empty glass of champagne is placed beside her. She wears an elegant, form-fitting black dress and large black necklace.
Image courtesy Focus Features

If you click into Netflix right this moment in the USA, the “trending now” section is filled with thrillers of all stripes: Crime thrillers like Zodiac, neo-noirs like Shutter Island, and psychological thrillers like The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Clearly, the average Netflix viewer has more than a passing interest in the twists and turns the genre provides, given these films sustaining popularity. What further surprises is the inclusion of erotic thrillers; in this case, Wild Things and Nocturnal Animals. These two films are quite different from each other, genre classification aside, but that points to the wide appeal and implementation of the genre. If Wild Things, a sleazy murder romp through the Floridian palisades, and Nocturnal Animals, a cosmopolitan romance of revenge and regret, can grab viewers attention among the endless scroll of streaming options available, there must be something about erotic thrillers that have us captivated.

Film scholar Linda Williams argues for the existence of “body genres.” This is her umbrella term for any genre that evokes a reaction from the body of the viewer. In Williams’ estimation, the body genres are horror, comedy, melodrama, and pornography. Put more simply, if a film has made you scream, laugh, cry, or… you know… recently, then you probably engaged with a body genre. What makes body genres so appealing is their often unpredictable hold over your reactions. We watch horror films because we want to test our fear to the limits. When we can’t, we scream, jump, or hit the person next to us. The physical reaction the film evokes is as much a part of the fun as a cool monster or a good soundtrack.

With this in mind, we can think of the erotic thriller as a super-genre, or a super-body-genre. A good erotic thriller is certainly scary and sexy, but a really good erotic thriller contains elements of comedy and melodrama as well. The aforementioned Wild Things is a really good erotic thriller. Amidst the killing and threesomes, there are absurd plot twists aplenty, enough to evoke both your pathos and a good amount of laughs, which could be tiring, but remains engaging due to sympathetic female characters and rapid pacing. Few films have the power to evoke such a range of physical sensation, but Wild Things might do just that.

Matt Dillon as Sam Lombardo stands between two younger women; Denise Richards as Kelly Van Ryan (left, in a bra) and Neve Campbell as Suzie Toller (right). He holds Kelly's face, pulling her hair back. Suzie looks on, holding a champagne bottle.
Image Courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing

That isn’t to say that erotic thrillers have no issues. They usually objectify their leads, especially women, into meat puppets born only for sex and violence. The femme fatale is given a more explicit role here, often quite literally. They use their bodies to get what they want, but are seldom given the dignity of using a gun or knife to defend themselves. In fairness, men aren’t given a much more dynamic treatment either, usually relegated to macho detective roles or purely as prey for the femme fatale to sink her teeth into. Unlike most other genres containing nudity, especially compared to fantasy and comedy, gender has little impact on potential for full-frontal scenes; a welcome bit of equality among all the trashy fun. 

Despite said trashy fun often being heteronormative and generic, most viewers don’t expect much more from the average erotic thriller. Sometimes it’s just nice to watch hot people go at each other, be it sexually or with a knife (or both at once). The plots are convoluted enough to keep you interested while not demanding a high level of introspection after the fact, and the aforementioned physical responses these films add a dose of adrenaline on top of the entertainment. 

It’s no wonder that studios have started to bring the genre back. Amazon Studios released The Voyeurs on their streaming platform in September to a good deal of audience interest, bolstered in viewership by the popularity of their young leads Sydney Sweeney and Justice Smith. More in debt to Hitchcock than most installments in the genre, it delivered a good deal of sex and blood on top of the mystery. In the indie sphere, Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta and Olivia Wilde’s forthcoming Don’t Worry Darling promise to deliver more of the genre to audiences when they hit theaters. The success of The Voyeurs and a coming emergence of modern erotic thrillers from trusted directors points to a potential trend toward the genre over 2022 and beyond.

Virginie Efira as Benedetta Carlini wears her nun's habit and a cross necklace. She spreads her arms wide, mimicking the crucified statue of Jesus behind her.
Image courtesy Pathé Distribution

Whether it truly takes hold of contemporary audiences or not, the erotic thriller has a latent appeal across generational lines. The proof is in the streaming: people are watching these films. Maybe they’re clicking because of the sexy thumbnails, but there’s an undeniable entertainment value to the genre that has kept us coming back. In our current sterile theatrical environment, devoid of much nudity and especially of sex, erotic thrillers are a breath of fresh air. If the right creators come along to revamp the genre and bring it back to its former glory, we could be in for some amazing (and fun!) films.